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Forget Skeletons In the Closet, it's all about Cats Up Your Chimney Now!!

From guard cats to shoes up chimneys: how to protect your home from fairies and witches

Discovered within the wall of a house in Hertfordshire
A cat bricked up in a wall. An old shoe perched up a chimney breast. A figurine hidden in the rafters. A braid of human hair hanging in the attic. These are just some examples The Concealed Revealed Project is currently trying to catalogue and map these odd hidden items, and the numbers are reaching the thousands of the many weird, wonderful and in some instance downright disturbing objects that people have found concealed within their homes during renovations.

Discovered in the chimney of a house in Ilkley, Yorkshire
Many of the objects date to the 18th and 19th centuries, and most appear to have been deliberately secreted away into the fabric of houses – but why? Literary sources give us few answers, leaving us guessing as to why the past occupants of these houses felt the need or inclination to conceal such an odd assortment of objects. Fortunately, folklore archaeologists are nothing if not thrifty; we are used to making a little evidence go a long way, and so theories abound. 

The most popular theory, proposed by archaeologist Ralph Merrifield in his seminal book The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, holds that these hidden objects were protective devices. The post-medieval household was, after all, subject to the malicious attention of a veritable menagerie of malevolent, supernatural beings.

The horror movies of today stem from these earlier times, when disease and misfortune were still attributed to evil forces with malign intentions. Witches and their shapeshifting familiars were still feared to threaten the community. Spirits and revenants still haunted the popular imagination, unable or unwilling to be at peace. The fairy – still a far cry from the wing-fluttering, wand-flourishing, wish-granting figure we imagine today – was widely believed to covet human children and abduct them whenever opportunity arose. And of course the devil was an ever-present force, sending his demons to tempt, taunt, and torment.

Danger everywhere

So the outside world was rife with dangers – dangers the home needed protecting from. But these preternatural forces were not deterred by locks and latches; they could breach boundaries via the tiniest spaces: slender slivers beneath doors, gaps around windows, fissures in the walls, chinks in the roof, and of course the notoriously assailable chimney. The very places that these strange hidden objects are found. So were they placed in these vulnerable locations in order to protect them? Were they a form of supernatural safeguarding?


Found in the roof space of a church in Clifton, Cumbria
Take the concealed cat as an example., like the one in the picture, found in a roof in Cumbria. Arranged in hunting poses and bricked up in walls, these unfortunate felines may well have been employed for the same job pet cats are tasked with today: catching vermin. Only rather than (or as well as) deterring mice, they scared away pests of the supernatural variety: the witch’s familiar, for example, which was often believed to take on animal form.
Such safeguarding may strike you as strange; further evidence of the difference between us and our ancestors. But even a cursory survey of our own modern-day security habits reveals that we’re not so very different after all.

MORE ABOUT THE CONCEALED REVEALED PROJECT

An old shoe up a chimney breast. A mummified cat in the roof space. A child’s cap in a wall cavity. A horse skull under the floorboards. These are just some of the objects people have discovered when renovating their homes – undoubtedly quite surprising finds considering the odd (indeed, sometimes quite disturbing) nature of the objects, coupled with their unusual locations.

It’s unlikely that these objects found their way into such places by chance; in most cases it seems quite obvious that they were deliberately concealed. But when, by whom, and why? These are questions that scholars, such as Ralph Merrifield, June Swann, Brian Hoggard, and Timothy Easton have been asking for decades now. Piecing together literary sources, material evidence, and oral history, they’re a little closer to understanding the custom of concealment, but much of it still remains a mystery to them.

The Concealed Revealed, which is a strand of the Inner Lives Project, is hoping to continue the search for answers by taking a very broad look at concealed objects. They’re interested in any type of object whatsoever, from the bizarre to the mundane, so long as it was found in an unusual location. Maybe it was secreted away to protect the house from malevolent supernatural forces. Maybe it was hidden as some sort of time capsule or maybe even placed there just as a “bit of a laugh”. Or perhaps it was simply lost. Whatever the possible reasons behind their concealments, they’re interested in hearing about them!

They’re mapping concealed objects globally on Historypin, combining historical literary sources with physical finds and – most importantly – with the testimonies of the finders of these objects. Because the main aim of The Concealed Revealed is to consider the custom of concealment from a slightly different angle: to shift focus away from the concealers, to the actual finders.

What do people in the 20th and 21st centuries think when they discover these objects in their houses? How do they treat them? How do they feel about them? What do they do with them? What theories do they hold about why the original concealers chose to hide them? Contemporary finders do more than bring these objects to light physically; they shed light on the continuing relationship between objects, the home, and notions of ‘magic’ and the supernatural.

This is why they’re appealing to any finders of concealed objects to contact us. Regardless of whether or not you still have the object in question, regardless of where you are in the world, they’re eager to hear from you, so send an email to c.houlbrook@herts.ac.uk. And if you’re wanting advice on what to do with your concealed object then take a look at the Guidance for Finders section.

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